City’s History Should Trump Developer’s Economic Feasibility

Yesterday’s Denver Post featured an article written by Tina Griego about the old Cathedral High School buildings at 1840 Grant, in Denver. 

Sagebrush Capital, a developer who is under contract with the Archdiocese of Denver to buy the property, intends to demolish all the buildings and build an apartment complex on the site.  Sagebrush’s application for a certificate of non-historic designation from the city (a precursor to an application for a demolition permit) prompted city planners to open up a time period to allow people to apply for the building to be designated as a Landmark Structure.

According to the article, city planning staff describes some of the complex as representing “an exemplary example of Spanish Renaissance Revival style by a noted architect.”

A representative of Sagebrush Capital says that “it’s not materially, structurally or economically feasible to redevelop these buildings.”  It’s often not economically feasible for for-profit companies to redevelop historic structures.  However, the question of material and structural feasibility should be answered by a different party.

In order to preserve the character of a city, the qualities that create a sense of place and set one city apart from another city, city planners need to think beyond short-term economic growth.  Retaining the features that make up the unique feel of a city has to be a priority over other things such as economic development.  (Imagine if planners all over the country were to approve every proposed demolition and development in every city.  In a matter of decades, Denver, Atlanta, Dallas and Charlotte could be virtually indistinguishable from each other.)

The law of our city actually states that the preservation of such exemplary buildings is a public necessity.  Denver’s Code of Ordinances contains a chapter on Landmark Preservation, in which it states that:

It is hereby declared as a matter of public policy that the protection, enhancement, perpetuation and use of structures and districts of historical, architectural or geographic significance, located within the city or its mountain parks, is a public necessity, and is required in the interest of the prosperity, civic pride and general welfare of the people.” – Denver, Colorado, Code of Ordinances, Title II – Revised Municipal Code, Chapter 30 – Landmark Preservation, Article I. – In General, Paragraph 1.

Some of these buildings at the Cathedral High School complex are irreplaceable.  Buildings such as these contribute to the character of our city in a way that cannot be duplicated with new construction.  Historic buildings often act as a cornerstone for neighborhoods, and are a source of local pride for good reason – they’re unique and memorable.  What makes Denver the city it is?  What happens when that historic character is “all used up”?  At that point, why would anyone want to live in (or build in) Denver, if similar nondescript opportunities for living (or building) are more economically feasible elsewhere?

I will be extremely disappointed if Landmark Preservation Commission does not recommend to City Council that the exemplary buildings be designated as Landmark Structures.  I will be extremely disappointed if City Council does not vote to designate the exemplary buildings as Landmark Structures. 

The long-term benefits of preserving the special things about Denver, including historic buildings that contribute to the character of our neighborhoods, need to be a higher priority than any short-term economic benefit.

Architecture’s Identity Problem? Nope. (More on the Importance of Licensure)

There’s an article out there that keeps popping up on my radar screen (ok, on my Twitter feed).  It’s about “Architecture’s Identity Problem.”  The article is by John Cary, and is published by GOOD.1  

John Cary says that “the profession and the public are measurably worse off because of “the fact that “more than half of architecture school graduates don’t enter the profession” and “fewer still get licensed.”  I disagree.  In fact, I think that the profession and the public are bad off enough because of how many people are out there designing and working in architecture firms without demonstrating, through examination, that they’re qualified enough to be licensed architects.2

John Cary seems to suggest that people who graduate from architecture school should be able to be architects without having to endure an internship or the Architect Registration Examination.  As part of his protest against the long internships and examination requirements that architects have to undergo before being able to call themselves architects, the article compares architectural internships to medical residencies.  This is not a good comparison.

The article points out that medical school graduates are legitimately called doctors before completing their residencies.  That’s true.  Medical students graduate from medical schools as M.D.’s, medical doctors.  However, first they graduate from undergrad.  They they apply to, and have to be admitted to, med school.  They take their first round of national board exams after their second year of medical school, then during the last 2 years of their 4 year medical school programs, their training is all clinical, in hospitals, under the direct supervision of doctors.  Then they take their second round of national board exams.  Then they graduate.  Then they do their internships (the first year of their residencies) and take their third round of national board exams.  Then, finally, they’re allowed to practice without having to be supervised by other doctors.  And then they go on to finish their residencies.  And take more board exams.  Then many do fellowships, again learning from other doctors.  So it’s not as if medical students just go to school, sit in classrooms for 4 years, and graduate as medical doctors.  They are thoroughly tested, by national exams, 2 different times before graduation, and they also have 2 years of practical experience before they graduate from medical school.  (And then most continue their training.)    

But the biggest difference between medical school and architecture school is that med students are taught by doctors – licensed doctors.  And the students are practicing clinical medical work, in hospitals, during the last half of med school.  They are observing and helping doctors treat patients, before they graduate as M.D.’s.  And when they go on to practice medicine unsupervised, they are regulated and licensed by the states they practice in.  NOT EVEN HALF of the professors teaching in accredited architecture schools are LICENSED anywhere in the U.S.  In a 2009 study by the NAAB, only 34% of faculty at NAAB-accredited schools of architecture were licensed architects.3  

Therefore, architecture students are barely being taught by actual architects.  And, very little of what is actually taught to these students is information about “making sure buildings don’t fall down.”  School curricula are very heavy on theory and design and very light on building technology – the stuff architects need to know to make sure their designs don’t fall down. 

Another important thing to consider is that many architecture students never work in architecture offices before they graduate from architecture school.

These are very good reasons for the fact that, as John Cary says “Earning a diploma from architecture school isn’t enough to be awarded the title of ‘architect.'”  The heavy focus on theory and design in school is the reason the architectural profession has the requirement for an internship (apprenticeship) period.  In some states, you can still sit for your exams and get licensed after a certain number of years of practice under the direct supervision of a licensed architect, even if you don’t have a degree of any type.4  This demonstrates the importance that regulatory agencies place on experience and demonstration through examination over schooling.  I personally believe that, more than a degree in architecture, the combination of practical experience and successful completion of the examinations is a better indicator of a person’s being properly qualified to design buildings that will not fall down.   

Not everyone makes it through all those steps that medical students have to undergo, and not everyone makes it through all the steps that architectural interns have to undergo.  These applications, exams, and grueling hours weed some people out.  Think about it – do you want the guy who didn’t pass those national exams, and who doesn’t have malpractice insurance, operating on YOU?  No, you want the guy who had the intelligence and the perseverance to get through all these barriers to being a doctor.

Do you want the person who didn’t feel like taking the Architect Registration Examination designing your office building?  You shouldn’t – and your lender, your insurer and your attorney don’t – because that designer doesn’t have professional liability insurance because he doesn’t have a license to practice architecture.5 

John Cary wrote, “It’s a long, arduous road that many in the field are either unable or simply unwilling to travel.”  It is.  But why would you want those without the ability or the willingness to travel this road taking the professional responsibility for preparing the construction documents for YOUR buildings?

We need more architectural interns pursuing licensure.  In these very troubled times for our profession, we need to be pushing to raise the bar of professionalism, not to lower it.  As John Cary says, many people do “have a romantic view of the architecture world.”  That’s fine, but it’s not reality.  And it’s time for those of us IN the architecture world to WAKE UP to reality, and push for more quality, not less, in our profession.  


1. Here’s the link to the article:

2. With such high unemployment levels among architects right now, how could the profession and the public possibly be better served if everyone who wants to be an architect is legally allowed to just say that he is an architect?  We have too many unemployed licensed architects, who, generally, are more qualified to practice architecture than all the unemployed unlicensed architectural designers.  

3. This 34% figure includes professors, associate professors, and assistant professors.  Only 31% of actual professors are licensed.  Here’s a link to the website NAAB: where you can get the report.

4. In Colorado, that period is 10 years.

5. In Colorado, you can’t get errors and omissions insurance if you aren’t licensed in the state.  Sophisticated clients will not hire an architect who doesn’t have this professional liability insurance. 




Architects, CSI Is Not Just About Specs

Fellow architects, solutions offered by the Construction Specifications Institute take the brain damage out of communication in many phases of design and construction.  Also, taking advantage of the educational opportunities CSI offers can help you be a better architect.

The Construction Specifications Institute is not just about specs.  CSI offers formats and processes for the project team to use for many phases of a building’s design and construction, from Preliminary Project Description through Punch List.  (You don’t have to reinvent these things for your practice.)  CSI also offers educational programs about technical topics from building envelope performance to daylighting.

It’s fun, and fulfilling, to design.  It’s a great accomplishment to listen to a client’s needs and put solutions on paper in the form of a building design.  My favorite phase of design, when I worked as an architect, was design development.  The inefficient (in my eyes) schematic design process was out of the way, and the complicated construction documents phase was yet to come.  In DD, I didn’t have to detail things, and the client’s needs had already been taken into account in schematic design.  I could just focus on the big picture of the building itself, and coordinate and refine plans, elevations, and sections.  Fun!

But the practice of architecture is not all about fun with drawings.  Fellow architects, we are part of the construction industry.  Most of us don’t design “unbuilt work” on purpose.  Most of us are designing buildings for the purpose of getting them constructed.  When we produce construction documents, the end users of those documents aren’t our clients, and they aren’t magazine readers, they’re the people who are supposed to build a building from those documents.

The technical information that the contractor needs to know (in order to build your design) doesn’t all reside in that big book called the Project Manual.  An awful lot of the technical stuff needs to be drawn, in detail, on your drawings.  Architects (not just spec writers) need to understand the technical details of construction. 

It’s great to have a good-looking rendering.  But it’s better to have a design that gets executed really, really well in construction.  A building that lasts and looks good as it ages speaks well of its architect. 

Here’s how you get a great building, a great execution of your design:  First have good construction documents that clearly communicate to the contractor the technical details of your design intent.  Second, have excellent communication with the contractor throughout the construction phase.

CSI has solutions that help tremendously with construction documents and construction phase communication.  You don’t need to be a CSI member to take advantage of some of the things CSI offers, such as education, standards and formats, webinars, and construction industry news.  But membership opens the door to more benefits, such as networking opportunities and member discounts on the things I mentioned above.

If you’re considering joining CSI, this weekend is a good time to do so.  Right now, today through Monday, you get 20% off national membership dues.  (If you want to join your local chapter in addition, which you should to get the full benefit of CSI, that separate membership is still at the normal price.)  Here’s the scoop from CSI:

Join CSI by October 31 and pay only $192 for national dues — a 20% savings.

1.    Visit
2.    Select “Join Now”, and then click “Sign Up as a New Member”
3.    Enter Promotion Code 1220ARCH when prompted
4.    Click the “Add Discount” button

We recommend you also join a chapter, where you can attend local education sessions and networking opportunities (chapter dues are not included in this promotional offer).

“Architect” Magazine Actually Asks “Does Licensure Matter?”

I got my “Architect” magazine in the mail today (you know, “The Magazine of the American Institute of Architects”).  There’s an article called “The Problem with Licensure” or “The 50-Year-Old-Intern” that is all about “… a decline in registered professionals…  And should we care?”


Here’s a link to the article:  It’s about the so-called “philosophical debate” about whether licensure matters.  It matters.  

Without licensure and regulation by the states, the public has nothing reassuring them that people practicing architecture are qualified to do so.  The Colorado Revised Statutes state that the regulatory authority of the Colorado state board of licensure for architects “is necessary to safeguard the life, health, property, and public welfare of the people of this state and to protect them against unauthorized, unqualified, and improper practice of architecture.” 

Without architects’ professional liability insurance, their clients don’t have much recourse in the case of errors and omissions by an architect.  When I obtained my architect’s professional liability insurance in the state of Colorado, the first question my agent asked me was whether I was a registered architect in Colorado.  I told him that I am, and he said, good, because you can’t get insurance without being licensed

This is telling.  The stuff that floats to the top when the lawyers and the insurance companies get involved tells us that licensure matters to the public, licensure matters to the governments, licensure matters to the courts, licensure matters to the insurers, and licensure matters to sophisticated clients.  And it should matter. 

Ron Geren’s recent blog post, “Towards a More Irrelevant Architect” touches on this issue when he says:

“In an effort to protect its members, and the profession in general, from undue risk, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) inadvertently reduced the influence of the architect by minimizing the liability to which the architect may be subject.  This shirked risk was quickly snatched up by other members of the construction industry—namely by contractors and members of the growing construction management profession.” – Ron Geren

Risk is often carried by the people who are willing to be grownups, and risk is often shirked by those who are less willing to step up and take responsibility for their own actions (like, well, children).  Remember that whole risk-reward thing?  When architects are willing to take more responsibility for their own actions, they’ll have more freedom, and will earn more respect. 

Architects, we need to protect ourselves.  But we don’t do it by ducking responsibility, and we don’t do it by having the magazine that is the so-called voice of our primary professional organization practically condoning design professionals’ remaining unlicensed. 

First, architects need to have very good agreements.  Don’t sign Owner-Architect agreements that have the potential to screw you over.  

Second, architects need to have very good construction documents.  Don’t issue bad documents.  Have good drawings, have good specs, have coordinated documents.  If you have interns doing most of your drawing production, review carefully before those documents go out with YOUR stamp on them.  

Third, architects need to have very good insurance.  (Oh, yeah, and you need to be LICENSED to get that.) 

Then work hard.  Do your best.  And encourage your employees to follow in your footsteps and get licensed.  Maybe you can’t give them raises for getting licensed, but at least give them verbal encouragement to take their exams, and praise them when they pass all of their exams.  We are in this thing together, and the interns are the future of our profession.  And interns need to be on a path to licensure!!

Specifying Masonry

Last Wednesday, I was part of a panel discussion at the Rocky Mountain Masonry Institute (RMMI).  We discussed “Specifying Masonry.” 

I was there to be the “put the info in the right place” person on the panel, and I learned a lot from the other panel members:  Diane Travis of the Rocky Mountain Masonry Institute, David Eatherton of Eatherton Masonry, Jay Retzko of Boral Best Block, and Brad Olson of Acme Brick.

Here’s the link to download a copy of my “Specifying Masonry” reminders hand out:

One of the things that I stressed in this panel discussion is that when architects need information on the masonry products that they’re designing with, they should contact the technical reps for those products.  The reps know more about their products than anyone else could be expected to know.

And for technical assistance beyond the masonry products themselves, architects can contact RMMI’s technical director Diane Travis at

Architects can get AIA continuing education credits for attending the Rocky Mountain Masonry Institute Take-Out Talks, which are at 11:30 a.m. on the first and second Wednesday of each month, at RMMI, 686 Mariposa Street, in Denver.   Rocky Mountain Masonry Institute’s website is